Collapse, Not Apocalypse

Thomas Cole’s ‘Destruction’, the fourth of his five-panel series ‘The Course of Empire‘, 1836. Public domain.

Several people have pointed me to Chris Hedges’ latest article “The Dawn of the Apocalypse”, which includes a lengthy summation of the current state of climate collapse, and includes links to recent interviews with Extinction Rebellion founder Roger Hallam.

I think Chris, and Roger, have it mostly right, except for two things:

  1. their preoccupation with laying blame for climate collapse on “global elites” and others; and
  2. their failure to consider climate collapse in the larger context of multi-faceted global ecological collapse (of which climate collapse is only the most-studied facet), and the more immediate and paralyzing impact of global economic collapse.

Let me take these two issues in order:

The futility of the blame game

There’s an almost religious presumption in many of the current proclamations by climate activists that a forced, death-bed repentance by the fossil-fuel industry and those who support it is possible, or would be significantly helpful.

I don’t think either of these presumptions is true. A radical reform is not possible because it runs counter to the basis of our entire economic system, and would immediately lead to the sacking of the repentant and their replacement with non-repentant corporate leaders. It would not be helpful because if Big Oil stopped meeting the now-essential needs of 7.9B citizens demanding ever-more hydrocarbon fuels, they would be quickly supplanted by nationalized enterprises, the underground economy, and individuals burning coal, wood, and anything else that’s flammable to fill the gap. We the citizens are addicted to crude, and we will get our fix, and the ecology be damned.

We’re fucked, and there’s nothing we can do about it. We are going to burn the rest of the world’s fossil fuel reserves (or substitute wood and coal and anything else that will burn if/when those reserves become unavailable or uneconomic) sooner or later, because we will never tolerate the immense short-term suffering that will come from not doing so.

Trudeau and other ‘moderate’ leaders aren’t encouraging more and more fossil fuel burning because they’re evil selfish corrupt monsters — they’re doing so because they think that, given the delicate balance of ecology and economy, this is the best ‘middle path’ they can follow given the very little control that they can wield at all. If they were to pursue the radical course Chris and Roger propose, they would be quickly deposed, and the coups would have the tacit support of the majority of citizens of all political stripes.

It’s quite simple: None of us is willing to make the sacrifices necessary to avert collapse. We have shown that to be true in our elections and our buying decisions as much as through the corporate behaviours we tolerate. We’re not “to  blame” for that. This is our well-intentioned nature, and the expression of that nature is now colliding with the longer-term interests of our planet and all its residents. This does not make us evil; it makes us human.

Laying the blame, whether on ‘evil’ others or on our ‘sinful’ selves is misplaced, pointless, and emotionally lazy. It’s merely a way for the religiously (in the broadest sense of the term) indoctrinated to feel morally better about what they have and have not done in the face of the crisis.

So yes, Chris and Roger, we’re fucked, and it’s going to be mostly awful. But only when we acknowledge that collapse is inevitable and that laying blame achieves nothing, can we start to help each other cope with that grim realization and start to prepare for the radical changes in our lives it will necessarily usher in.

The larger collapse context

There is also a giant part of the collapse equation that Chris and Roger do not discuss, partly because they will lose much of their audience if they try to explain the full complexity of the situation, and partly because it will make their suggested radical solutions appear hopeless and moot.

Climate collapse is one facet of the accelerating ecological collapse that is producing the sixth great extinction of life on this planet. Other facets include biodiversity loss, the destruction of our soils, the massive despoiling of our fresh waters and oceans, the fouling of our air, the disruption of once-stable global air and water currents, and many other types of destruction and unbalancing of the ecological systems on which we all depend. Even if climate change were magically solved tomorrow, ecological collapse would continue to accelerate. It would just take a little longer to undo human civilization.

And even more importantly, missing from Chris’ and Roger’s discussion is the impact of economic collapse, which any careful reading of history will suggest is going to precede, complicate and exacerbate ecological collapse.

Economic collapse, brought about by the realization that almost all current debts are unrepayable, and that in a fixed-resource world, perpetual profit growth (on which almost all of the value of assets from homes to stocks utterly depends) is impossible, is as inevitable as, and more imminent than, ecological collapse. As I’ve written at length elsewhere, the economic collapse that much of the world is already grappling with will be permanent, not just a temporary depression. And it will be global. We have reached the limits to growth, and instead of reducing our consumption to adapt to that hard reality, our consumption is still increasing exponentially. Permanent global economic collapse means, for example, that we will burn the last of our forests, our coal and wood and finally our furniture, because we will not be able to afford to extract the last of our oil and gas, and because we desperately need the fuel.

Economic collapse will cripple the capacity of governments and regulators to do anything to address ecological collapse, because it is almost certain to precipitate political collapse and bankrupt governments (even the few that are not already ‘technically’ bankrupt) and corporations. As those corporations go under and cease operations, we may get our wish that the remaining hydrocarbons on which our civilization depends will remain forever in the ground. But we may well regret that wish.

We are going to find ourselves, gradually and haltingly over the next few decades, in a world of helpless chaos — a world in which, like most humans throughout history, we will have to rely on our own local resources and our own local community to give us what we need to survive and live sufficiently.

This will be a massive challenge, and some communities will rise to the occasion, while others will not. We’ll have time to adjust to not bringing new children into the world, which will alleviate the suffering of collapse somewhat. We’ll have time to relearn the essential skills of living in community and with each other, which may well be astonishing. The debates we’re having today, about what we and others should or should not be doing, will be forgotten.


The word apocalypse in Chris’ title is, tellingly, a religious one, referring to the revelation of a divinely-invoked cataclysm followed inevitably by the permanent triumph of good over evil. The religious, it seems, can never give up their crutch of hope, their belief that, no matter how we sin, we are a species of destiny.

In the real world, nature doesn’t give a fuck about our species, and whether it survives or perishes, thrives or suffers. No other species would lament our disappearance from the planet, which may or may not happen soon.

There is no apocalypse, and there has never been one. Just plain ordinary garden-variety collapse, which happens from time to time, when things get too far out of balance.

Nothing to be done about that, and no one to blame.

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14 Responses to Collapse, Not Apocalypse

  1. John Whiting says:

    YES to every word! Dave, remember your summary of Ronald Wright’s great book, even more accurate than his own?

    A SHORT HISTORY OF PROGRESS The upward concentration of wealth ensures that there can never be enough to go around. Ronald Wright traces the history of progress traps.

  2. James says:

    Very good, and thank you for laying it out so clearly.

    I’m interested in your theme of ‘Local’ and how we can ‘help each other cope with that grim realization and start to prepare for the radical changes in our lives it will necessarily usher in’. More on this pls or have you covered this before?

  3. ray says:

    you’re just pointing out what every student of our overshoot predicament should know by now. Nobody is to blame. Things are what they are and they are what they have become. No agents involved here. There are no agents in this universe.
    Getting a bit sick and tired of these futile blame games.
    Maybe people really find it too hard to swallow that nobody is in control or can do something about our predicament. I have some sympathy with this view but at some stage we should be able to face the reality (what is that?) of the human condition.

  4. September 16 says:

    In your pull no punches essay, you’ve hit the nail on the head. In a nutshell, radical reform “runs counter to the very basis of our entire economic system”. We are definitely screwed. No need to add anything. Perfectly stated!

  5. John Lemieux says:

    The Mother Of All Bankruptcies.

  6. What JMG called “catabolic collapse” – burning the furniture and eating the seed corn on the way down. What an excellent, superbly accurate essay.

  7. Brutus says:

    Haven’t yet read the linked article but will do so eventually. Let me respond instead to your main points. Apology for the excess length of my comment.

    Aggregating individual behaviors into social dynamics and then applying them backwards has always bothered me. I call them “just so” stories. The principal example is how men and women on the whole employ different mating and child-rearing strategies emerging from both biology and game theory. I get how in aggregate those strategies can be identified with some clarity, but then reversing the direction and concluding that all men behave like all other men and all women behave like the totality of women is a grave error. A great number of exceptions exist for myriad reasons. To conclude that the giant mess evidenced at this point in history (imminent collapse) is “just” capitalists doing capitalism or “just” humans being human is a similar mistake. Considering how you don’t believe in personal agency or free will, it makes perfect sense. However, there is no doubt that all manner of criminal and maniacal behaviors by individuals are undertaken with full knowledge that whatever they’re doing, typically shrouded in secrecy, is self-defeating, wrong, evil, or some complex of other negative modifiers. They obviously have choices (including do nothing) but plunge forward anyway because the short-term upside appears irresistible compared to risk. By asserting that individuals had no choice to do otherwise, that they are just humans doing what humans do, you shift responsibility to the aggregate, which like the mob mind does in fact manifest group behaviors but exhibits no real executive decision-making and thus has nowhere to place blame or liability. I simply disagree.

    Does placing blame matter? Probably not. We’re all on this carnival ride, masses and elites alike. Perhaps it’s a sign of my emotional weakness (i.e., righteousness) that I still want engineers of the worst current-day atrocities revealed and brought low, but reframe the desire for justice across the globe or, say, over half a century and its significance look decidedly weak. That’s just a rhetorical device.

    Regarding climate change being the biggest threat to survival, I agree that it’s just one facet. When discussing climate change, the word anthropomorphic used to be the telling modifier but has been quietly dropped and mostly forgotten. I’ve described what we humans have been doing for the past 10K years or so, unwittingly at first but with increasing awareness especially in the last couple centuries, as a terraforming project — except that instead of making the Earth more hospitable (like alien invaders attempt in science fiction stories) we’re making it uninhabitable. If you and I know this, damn sure many others do as well, and yet there is no brake on or cessation of the project. One might have hoped that recognizing that we’re essentially killing ourselves off as a species would motivate us to stop digging our own graves. Lots of reasons why that hasn’t happened except perhaps for a lot of jawboning (yours and mine included).

    I’ll agree, too, that if we survive military and criminal mischief sure to occur as societies collapse (no assurances there), we will eventually be burning furniture for warmth. Accordingly, those of us alive now are ruined people for whatever hellscape may follow, simply unable by virtue of our conditioning to adapt to whatever the world becomes.

  8. Joe Clarkson says:

    Well said!

    That economic collapse will likely precede environmental collapse is the only hopeful thing about our whole situation. If economic collapse happens soon enough (within the next decade or so), we may leave just enough intact ecosystem around the world to stave off total environmental collapse, a hothouse earth and human extinction. This is something I hope for dearly.

    Whether sooner or later, collapse will mean the premature deaths of billions of people, deaths that we might say were preordained when we found a way to exploit the huge reservoir of energy that is fossil fuels. It is unfortunate, but population overshoot is only resolved that one way – death rates vastly exceeding birth rates. It is now far too late for birth control to allow current natural death rates to do the job, so overshoot resolution will require rapidly increasing rates of premature mortality.

    Avoiding premature death will be difficult for everyone, but there are certainly better options than doing nothing, especially if one lives in a modern city. The best time to have left the city and started the living-without-modernity learning curve was several decades ago. The second best time is now. If you want to be able to burn firewood to cook and stay warm rather than your furniture, you’re going to have to live where firewood is available in abundance. No city meets that requirement.

    And then there are nuclear weapons. Getting through collapse without any of them detonating is going to be difficult. A major nuclear war may not be survivable by anyone, but smaller wars may still allow some human survival. Be prepared. Leave the city and take your Geiger counter with you. This is your last chance.

  9. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks for all your thoughts and kind comments. It is kind of amazing that no matter how often or clearly this is stated, so many people just don’t/won’t/can’t get it. The NYT, which is not a bunch of stupid or evil people, just keeps on talking about economic slowdowns as if they’re somehow a bad thing, and as if they can only ever be temporary. Ah, the invincible myth of perpetual progress. Hail Mary, we’re going deep!

  10. Paul Reid-Bowen says:

    In answer to your question Dave, I think it is just further evidence that most people, most of the time, are subject to the kind of cognitive dissonance that was highlighted in Leon Festinger’s classic study of an apocalyptic cult/religion When Prophecy Fails. Rather than cherished beliefs (e.g. in economic growth, technological progress) being rejected when confronted with counterevidence or serious challenges, most people will double down on what they “know” and just believe harder (and more creatively).

    As we now know with studies of cognate belief systems, such as conspiracy theories, many of our beliefs are far more closely tied to a sense of identity and one’s values than troubling evidence (such as the economy collapsing or a fifth consecutive years of wildfires).

    So, convincing people that their belief in capitalism, economic growth and progress are analogous to an apocalyptic cult can be a little tricky. But, of course, we should be wondering what our own blind spots are?

    Nice to see a comment from Paul Chefurka; I have found many of his articles really useful and use some of his materials when teaching (particularly on how sustainable are we really?)

  11. September 16 says:

    I read or maybe I should say I look at the Times every day to see how the mainstream thinks. All one has to do is to look at their business section to know that they are clueless. The Wall Street Journal is even worse.

  12. FamousDrScanlon says:

    Lately, I’ve noticed the blamers calling for climate denier punishment of the old school variety. I imagine it will get worse and eventually someone will deal out some vigilante punishment on climate deniers.

    It’s true that climate change is but one predicament under the Overshoot umbrella, but it’s one that will have the power to destroy civilization and extinct the humans all on it’s own.

    Global warming, via volcanism puking out masses of green house gasses has lead to a number of hot house mass extinctions on earth, including the most deadly mass extinction, The Permian. Lesser extinctions too.

    Since Elizabeth Kolbert published ‘The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History’ 2 new mass extinctions, one of the a hothouse mass extinction, have been discovered which means we have engineered and are living in the 8th mass extinction. Known.

    Ice House

    Fossils reveal a previously unknown mass extinction event

    “A new study published in the journal Nature Communications Biology has recently reported on a previously undocumented mass extinction event that occurred after the transition from the Eocene to the Oligocene geological period, approximately 30 million years ago.

    The event was caused by dramatic climate change that transformed the swampy lands of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula into icy landscapes, and resulted in the extinction of 63 percent of the Earth’s species.”

    Hot House

    Newly discovered mass extinction event triggered the dawn of the dinosaurs

    “Huge volcanic eruptions 233 million years ago pumped carbon dioxide, methane and water vapour into the atmosphere. This series of violent explosions, on what we now know as the west coast of Canada, led to massive global warming. Our new research has revealed that this was a planet-changing mass extinction event that killed off many of the dominant tetrapods and heralded the dawn of the dinosaurs. ”

    Hot and cold climate change driven mass extinctions. Paleontologist Peter Ward’s Medea Hypothesis gains more evidence.

    I don’t get it. I’ve been all over the collapse-O-sphere and have never seen anyone else bring up these other mass extinctions or talk about how the earth is responding to increased levels of green house gasses in the same fashion. It does not care who pulls the trigger, rapacious ape or volcanic traps – the end result is mass extinction. Climate change has proven it don’t need any help to wipe out up to 90% of life on this planet. Conversely, I’ve heard a number of scientists suggest the same can happen from human growth and paving over the world, hunting, pollution etc. So we have created a doubly whammy. Climate change gets most of the press because the Americans politicized it decades ago. It went big time in 1988.

  13. realist says:

    OTOH why worry about collapse?
    One can make a nice “living” out of it like Collapsnik Guy McPherson. :-D

  14. Brutus says:

    Let me take a moment to correct myself (no one else did). The term anthropomorphic means to take on the form of a human. The term anthropogenic means to to arise out of human cause(s). I meant the latter but mistakenly used the former in my comment dated July 28. Such mistakes etch themselves in my memory. Apologies.

    In reply to realist (July 30), I don’t understand your gratuitous swipe at Guy McPherson. Unlike others in the doomosphere, his assessments and offerings have been largely absent the hucksterism that characterizes others more clearly bent toward monetizing doom/collapse or simply self-aggrandizement. Our host here, Dave Pollard, is also satisfyingly free of commercial enticements toward premium memberships or financial advice (i.e., how to profit as the world collapses around us). No one is ideologically pure, so your obsequious rhetorical question I reject out of hand.

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